#BlogTour- Gunnar Staalesen- Fallen Angels “I liked the dark brooding tone to this one, with the growing self awareness Veum gains from revisiting his formative years.” @orendabooks

Fallen Angels (Varg Veum)

When Bergen PI Varg Veum finds himself at the funeral of a former classmate on a sleet-grey December afternoon, he’s unexpectedly reunited with his old friend Jakob guitarist of the once-famous 1960s rock band The Harpers and his estranged wife, Rebecca, Veum’s first love. Their rekindled friendship is thrown into jeopardy by the discovery of a horrific murder, and Veum is forced to dig deep into his own adolescence and his darkest memories, to find a motive and a killer…

Few things in life are as satisfying than immersing yourself in a new book by the godfather of Norwegian crime writing, Gunnar Staalesen, and once again Fallen Angels, the latest in the Varg Veum investigations, brings a whole host of new delights, and something different to this long running series…

I am in total admiration of writers who undertake to sustain writing an established series featuring the same central character, and particularly Staalesen who always seems to be able to expose different facets to Veum’s character, which are always plausible and gratifying for the follower of this series. What is noticeable about this book, compared to the previous books, is the more noticeable meditative tone, and the feeling of a greater degree of introspection. There are significantly less of the cynical and wryly humorous asides that this character so often employs, and instead there seems to be a greater degree of digging down into his life and motivations, and an incredibly dark denouement that is both full of pathos and very disturbing. This book gives Veum a chance to ruminate on his life more, as individuals he has known since childhood and his formative years begin to have untimely deaths, forcing Veum to reassess incidents from the past, and how they could have led to these current events.

In one noteworthy passage Veum sums up these exact thoughts, “Childhood is a wound that never heals; your youth a poster someone has tried in vain to tear down. All the years you have lived are here, like dirty footprints in the snow behind you. You have left your own chalk-marks on most of the walls in this town and no charlady has bleach strong enough to wash them off completely. And the child you once were, you will never be again.” Consequently, childhood, life, death, love, friendship, loyalty and betrayal are key themes throughout the book, as Veum attempts to track a determined and vengeful killer, but finds himself immersed in loves lost and betrayals uncovered and exposed in this very personal case. There is a much more sombre tone to this book as a whole, and quite intense examinations of the public vs the private in terms of the character’s lives, and the role of the spiritual and religious as time marches on, and age begins to become a greater concern in Veum’s mind, intensified in the series of murders of his peers, a couple of misjudged entanglements, and also as an important connection is rekindled from the past.

Once again, Staalesen works wonders for the Norwegian tourist board with his precise and descriptive portrayal of Bergen- both the good and the not so good- and its surrounding landscapes, so as he traverses the country in search of vital clues, the visual representation of these locales is always imbued with clarity and atmosphere. Likewise, there is an almost complete bibliography of the Norwegian music scene from the 1960s onwards, which adds an other layer of interest to the book, and perhaps more starkly as he charts the musical journey of the fictional band, The Harpers, shows the highs and lows of life in the spotlight, the drugs, the groupies, and more brutally how some continue to try and hold on to fame beyond the time they should, when the glory years are indeed well behind them. The central investigation is very deeply imbedded in the events from this period of the band’s success, and like water circling a drain, Veum slowly closes in on the disturbing goings-on before their parting of the ways.

As I said, there is a much more meditative tone to Fallen Angels overall, although Staalesen does seem to get an inordinate amount of pleasure from putting Veum through the emotional wringer fairly consistently in the series. I liked the dark brooding tone to this one, with the growing self awareness Veum gains from revisiting his formative years, his appreciation of his own upbringing, and how this has shaped him on a moral and spiritual level, in contrast to the morally dubious and in some cases, really dislikeable figures from his past. Another satisfying addition to this already excellent series and who knows what awaits Varg Veum in his next investigation… Recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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#BlogTour- Juris Jurjevics- Play The Red Queen “It oozes with realism, is packed with detail, and has a perceptive use of tension and scene setting, bolstered by strong characterisation.” @noexitpress

Play the Red Queen

Vietnam, 1963. A female Viet Cong assassin is trawling the boulevards of Saigon, catching US Army officers off-guard with a single pistol shot, then riding off on the back of a scooter. Although the US military is not officially in combat, sixteen thousand American servicemen are stationed in Vietnam ‘advising’ the military and government. Among them are Staff Sergeant Ellsworth Miser and Sergeant Clovis Robeson, two army investigators who have been tasked with tracking down the daring killer…

Welcome to the next stop on the blog tour for Juris Jurjevics’- Play The Red Queen, one of a trilogy of Vietnam set novels by this much missed author. Along with The Trudeau Vector and Red Flags, Jurjevic provides a powerful testament to the Indochina conflict, not only with a writer’s eye, but also with having served in the war himself.  This combat experience strengthens the authenticity and realism of his work, making it very reminiscent of the the work of such Vietnam War chroniclers such as Tim O’Brien and Philip Caputo…

What I found particularly impressive about this book was the sheer wealth of detail that Jurjevic injects into the book in a relatively slim page count. Not only does the reader get a real sense of the socio-political life of Vietnam during this period relating to the dictatorial grip of Vietnam’s rulers and the host of global interferences in the day to day life of the country, but also much more besides. There are references to not only the extreme corruption that lays at the heart of society, the influence of the supernatural on the mindsets of the citizens and the undercurrents of tensions on a country divided, and on the cusp of a major conflict. The air is rife with tension, and as a cunning and inventive assassin roams the streets, Jurjevic keeps the reader on a knife edge throughout. Not only does he focus on the powerplays and subjugation impacting on the citizens, and the US military personnel, but he also cleverly weaves in references to life back in America, with the rise of the civil rights movement and the growing unease at America’s involvement in what we now know with hindsight to be a particularly contentious and catastrophic intervention.

There are a wealth of characters in the book, some we get to know up close and personal and some we only view through the yes of others. I particularly liked the two main protagonists, Sergeants Miser and Robeson, who have had to undertake the dubious task of tracking the female assassin stealthily wreaking havoc amongst the military community. Miser in particular is a world weary and cynical individual whose dry humour and pragmatism adds an edge to his character, and endears us to him. As he finds himself negotiating the upper echelons of the American political hierarchy, and keeping ahead of the killer, we get an even greater sense of the corruption and potential power grabs that underscore this volatile situation. He has a little time for a romantic entanglement along the way, which again heightens the undercurrent of the communism vs capitalism ethos of the book, and along with Robeson gets into some very tight and dangerous situations indeed. Along with the references to the civil rights unrest at home, we also see this nicely played out with Miser being white and Robeson black, and how Robeson is often thoughtfully, and not so thoughtfully, excluded from some situations that arise purely due to his skin colour and not his rank.

The book nips along at a good pace with some good action packed set pieces and a satisfyingly violent and almost ethereal final scene. Jurjevic keeps a solid control of the escalating feel of peril, as Miser and Robeson close in on their target, and the contrary influence of others so involved in the central theme of corruption. I must confess that this genre is close to my heart having written my MA dissertation on representations of the Vietnam War in fiction, so it’s likely that I enjoyed Play The Red Queen as an assured representation of this genre. It oozes with realism, is packed with detail, and has a perceptive use of tension and scene setting, bolstered by strong characterisation. Recommended.

(With thanks to No Exit Press for the ARC)

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Andrew Shaffer- Hope Never Dies: An Obama/Biden Mystery

Seemed a good time to re-post my review of this one….

He’s an honest man in a city of thieves. He has no patience for guff, foolishness, or malarkey. He is United States Vice President Joe Biden. And when his favourite railroad conductor dies in a suspicious accident leaving behind an ailing wife and a trail of clues Amtrak Joe unwittingly finds himself in the role of a private investigator. To crack the case (and uncover a drug-smuggling ring hiding in plain sight), he’ll team up with the only man he’s ever fully trusted the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama. Together they’ll plumb the darkest corners of Wilmington, Delaware, where enemies lurk around every corner. And if they’re not careful, the blood on the tracks may be their own…

I mean this in the most positive and affectionate way, but this is book is UTTERLY BIZARRE but an absolute hoot too. Move over Batman and Robin, there’s a new crime fighting duo in town.

Yes, there is a whole whiff of the implausible about the investigation that the whip smart combo of Biden and Obama become wrapped up in, but that’s not really an issue. The absolute joy of the book is the ingenious hooking up of this completely original and left of field crime fighting partnership. The steady, obviously ageing, slightly resentful Biden, is a joy, with his penchant for ice cream, a quiet and sedentary life, his daily mission to not upset his wife, and his desperate need to build his bond/rekindle the bromance again with his former boss. Obama is this wonderfully sneaky, cool as a cucumber, cat burglar type figure, seeming to lead Biden into all sorts of trouble, but how far is Biden actually controlling this investigation, seeking the truth behind a friend’s mysterious death?

I found it an utter joy to see Biden go from mild mannered ex-politician to slightly unsteady avenging angel, and loved the kickabout humour, and at times sheer silliness of the whole affair. I’m sure American readers will pick up on references to the Obama/Biden administration that may have passed me by, but I loved the subtle digs at the unnamed Tweeter-In-Chief, and other satirical sideswipes. Entertaining, laugh out loud funny, and a genuinely enjoyable read with a partnership as great in fiction as they were in the White House. Oh for those days…

( I bought this copy of Hope Never Dies)

Check out the sequel too:

Following a successful but exhausting book tour, Joe Biden is looking forward to returning home. However, before he does, he’s got one last stop to make: Chicago, where the Obama Foundation is holding its first annual global economics forum. Barack Obama has invited Joe to meet a wealthy left-leaning philanthropist, whose deep pockets Joe will need if he decides to run for president. Joe isn’t even sure if wants to run but he s not going to pass up a rare chance to reconnect with his one-time governing mate. Joe and Obama barely have time to catch up before another mystery lands in their laps: Obama’s prized Blackberry is stolen. When the suspect turns up comatose from a gunshot wound, local police are content with writing it off as just another gangland shooting. But Joe and Obama smell a rat. In a race to find the shooter, Joe and Obama butt heads with their former compadre, Mayor Rahm Emanuel; follow a trail of clues through Chicago’s South Side; go undercover inside a Prohibition-era speakeasy; and scale the Tribune Tower in a Die Hard-worthy final set-piece. 

C. J. Cooke- The Nesting #BlogTour “The Nesting melds together the very best elements of Scandinavian crime fiction, with a convincing rendition of recognisable domestic noir and peppered with a sinister supernatural air, drawing on folkloric tales.” @cjesscooke @fictionpubteam

So what if Lexi isn’t telling the truth about who she is? Escaping to the remote snows of Norway was her lifeline. And all she wanted was to be a part of their lives. But soon, isolated in that cold, creaking house in the middle of ancient, whispering woods, Lexi’s fairy tale starts to turn into a nightmare. With darkness creeping in from the outside, Lexi’s fears are deepening. Lexi knows she needs to protect the children in her care. But protect them from what?

What a wonderful hybrid of fiction and crime genres The Nesting is, melding together the very best elements of Scandinavian crime fiction, with a convincing rendition of recognisable domestic noir and peppered with a sinister supernatural air, drawing on folkloric tales. With these distinct layers of difference confidently and tightly woven together, this is a  debut thriller from S.J. Cooke that is well worth seeking out…

Lexi is a damaged young woman, scarred mentally and physically from an incredibly rough childhood, and is at the point of absolute despair when karma steps in and transports her, through some artifice, to a new life in Norway caring for two young motherless girls. Yes, there is a degree of suspension of disbelief, as we see her assume a false identity but after an awkward start and various missteps, she takes on her new employment with both maturity and enjoyment, and quickly develops a lovely relationship with the two girls in her charge, working through their trauma and her own. Cooke gets across to the reader very well this growing confidence in Lexi, but as the story takes a darker turn, we gain even more empathy with Lexi as she tries to navigate a maelstrom of jealousy, suspicion and a malignant supernatural influence at the heart of this tale. As an even greater darkness encroaches on her, Lexi is seen to keep her wits about her, and the protective nature that so comes to the fore in the plot exposes Lexi’s own intensely personal reason for this heightened desire to keep safe these little girls. In the other characters, Cooke has a lovely touch in keeping them all slightly shadowy and not completely formed and builds up the deeper picture of them slowly and surely throughout the book. Consequently, we feel a degree of mistrust about them for a considerable part of the story which adds to the suffocating atmosphere of the story, and ramps up the mystery as we follow Lexi’s endeavours to unravel the jealousies and tensions that lie between them, and results in an extremely dark and compelling plot, reminiscent of the Scandinavian crime fiction genre in which this book casts itself.

Aside from the central murder mystery, Cooke proves adept at weaving in other themes and points of interest within the story, and none more so with the retelling of a couple of truly creepy Norse folk tales, the core of which feed into the main narrative. Far from being an unwelcome intrusion, I was fascinated by these and have done a note to self to seek out some more to scare the bejesus out of myself with. I thought this different strand to the plot really added to the strength of the book, stressing the idea that those things that we think only exist in fanciful tales and in our darkest nightmares, are not as fanciful as we may at first believe. I know I often labour the point in my reviews that I like to emerge from a book haven’t learnt something, or discovered a new way of looking at the world, and this book also fits this requirement. There are some interesting observations on the harmless harnessing of the natural world, as opposed to the more destructive methods which other less scrupulous individuals employ, and this worked in synchronicity with the building of a home which occupies the core of the book. It also neatly addressed how an ignorance of the natural world can be not only irresponsible, but can have severe ramifications indeed, both physical and mental.

I must confess that I found this book surpassed my expectations, as I naively thought that a run of the mill domestic noir book awaited me, but The Nesting went beyond this, and in some style. With it’s creepy blend of crime and the supernatural, the perfectly realised Norwegian setting, and the skilful melding of the power of the natural world and ancient folklore, I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Recommended.

(With thanks to HarperCollins for the ARC)

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Ben Creed – City of Ghosts #BlogTour “Perfect for fans of Gorky Park and Child 44, I was incredibly impressed with this chilling and increasingly disturbing thriller.” @welbeckpublish @ed_pr #BenCreed

Leningrad, Russia, 1951. The shadow of war lingers. Revol Rossel – once a virtuoso violinist with a glittering future – is now a humble state militia cop, forced to investigate desperate crimes in this desperate era. But when five frozen corpses are found neatly arranged between railway lines, Rossel is faced with the most puzzling – and most dangerous – case of his career. His hunt for the truth leads him to the dark heart of Leningrad’s musical establishment, and, ultimately, to the highest levels of the Kremlin itself. It’s a world he knows intimately. A world where his dreams were shattered. A world where a killer may now be hiding…

Take a trip with me if you will into the heart of Stalinist Russia in this rich and vivid debut novel, City of Ghosts by Ben Creed. Perfect for fans of Gorky Park, Child 44 and The Holy Thief, I was incredibly impressed with this chilling and increasingly disturbing thriller…

The absolute stand out feature of this novel is the sheer richness and wealth of historical and social detail, without it disrupting the natural flow of the plot itself, and with a real sense of keeping the reader engaged with this extra level of interest. There is a strong sense of historical authenticity running through the book from the outset, and if, like me, your knowledge of this particularly fraught and dangerous period of Soviet history is largely superficial, there is so much to be gleaned. Corruption is rife, abject poverty strongly in evidence but largely ignored by the higher echelons of power, and Creed paints an incredibly convincing picture of a society and city still bearing the wounds of the Second World War. There are numerous references to the debilitating siege of the city, the reverberation of the incredible stress and want that this caused, and yet the fierce sense of survival that arose in the populace to overcome this torrid time.

In a society riven with fear and suspicion, where a single slip of the tongue can lead to a lengthy sojourn in a Siberian gulag, or an instant death sentence, Creed captures this atmosphere perfectly throughout. In the dialogue between characters, there is a hesitation and procrastination, and a sense that no-one can be trusted with relationships, both professional and personal formed with this lingering mistrust. The reader, too, learns quickly that not everyone is as they seem, and this adds to the overarching darkness of the plot itself where a clever and twisted killer goes about their business. 

Revol Rossel, the state militia cop is an incredibly deep and interesting individual, whose moral core and sense of right is put under a huge amount of pressure as the case proceeds. With a flurry of flashbacks and glimpses into his past as an aspiring and talented musician, we again bear witness to the power of the state to suppress its citizens, crushing their hopes and dreams and wreaking violence and fear amongst them. Rossel is sensitive and caring and on the surface seems wholly unsuited to his role as a harbinger of the rules and regulations that so strictly dictate society, and this makes him a compelling and interesting character. As it becomes apparent that the hideous discovery that opens the book, may be in some way related to his previous life, Creed really puts Rossel through the emotional wringer, but never losing sight of the qualities that some of his colleagues regard as ineffectual imbue Rossel with a strength and decency that proves so valuable in this extremely testing investigation. The book is incredibly rich in characterisation from Rossel’s militia cohorts, to figures from his past (in some of the most touching scenes I have read for some while), and those that come under his investigative scrutiny too. 

I have read quite a few books set in this particular period, and can honestly say that Creed does bring something new and fresh to this genre of crime fiction. I loved the deeper cultural richness of this book, as some of it revolves around the world of classical music, with some intriguing clues being woven into this thread of the novel. Peppered with Russian phrases and a brilliant obscenity that I have now formally adopted (behind my mask of course) City of Ghosts felt incredibly authentic from the outset. Bolstered by the skilful weaving in of history and politics, I found this an enthralling and clever thriller, steeped in the feel of the period and the sinister atmosphere of fear and darkness in a totalitarian state. Recommended.  

 (With thanks to Welbeck Publishing for the ARC) 

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(With thanks to Welbeck Publishing for the ARC)

Amer Anwar- Stone Cold Trouble “An extremely well-plotted and meticulously planned thriller, that gathers a head of steam and ingenuity that’ll fair blow your socks off.” @ameranwar

Trying – and failing – to keep his head down and to stay out of trouble, ex-con Zaq Khan agrees to help his best friend, Jags, recover a family heirloom, currently in the possession of a wealthy businessman. But when Zaq’s brother is viciously assaulted, Zaq is left wondering whether someone from his own past is out to get revenge. Wanting answers and retribution, Zaq and Jags set out to track down those responsible. Meanwhile, their dealings with the businessman take a turn for the worse and Zaq and Jags find themselves suspected of murder. It’ll take both brains and brawn to get themselves out of trouble and, no matter what happens, the results will likely be deadly. The only question is, whether it will prove deadly for them, or for someone else…

It seems like an age ago that I read and reviewed the first of Amer Anwar’s series Brothers In Blood, (originally published as Western Fringes) but it has so been worth the wait for Stone Cold Trouble. We’re back on the mean streets of Southall and stone cold trouble is indeed never far from the surface…

What I love most about Anwar’s writing is the earthiness of tone, and the vitality of description that he consistently produces. Both books to date are an assault on the senses, as he so thoroughly immerses us in the lively and vibrant, if rough and ready atmosphere of Zaq and Jag’s stomping grounds, and the short visceral bursts of violence that ensue, as they find themselves caught up in some pretty testing situations- not all of their making. As Anwar depicts the Asian community, the little nuances and oddities that form the backdrop to his characters’ lives, family connections, and the strength of friendships forged that transcend religious differences, he paints a vivid, affectionate and wonderfully edgy picture for the reader. The book is peppered with references to Asian traditions, some with a delightful self-mocking feel to them, colourful colloquialisms, and all bound up with an innate rhythm of speech so the character’s voices echo around your head. From the legacy of Partition to contemporary retribution and revenge, the overlapping of storylines and the innate connections that link them all are carefully revealed, and drawn together beautifully. All this is conveyed to the reader with dry humour and pathos, compounded with the themes of loyalty and retribution, leading to a bloody and shocking denouement.

The main protagonist, Zaq Khan is a mercurial, and consequently, unpredictable character, who Anwar portrays in an extremely empathetic way. Zaq is an intelligent, wisecracking and resourceful young man, tainted by his time in prison, but absolutely ready to defend those he is closest to, even if it does run the risk of conflict with the police. As he and his best friend Jags become embroiled in the hunt for a family heirloom, gambled away by Jags’ feckless uncle Lucky, and try to track down the perpetrators of a senseless attack on Zaq’s brother, Tariq. There is some quick thinking to be done, favours to be asked and repaid, tricky negotiations, a damsel in distress to rescue, and some serious revenge to be had, all underscored by this slowly simmering sense of Zaq being a kind of human volcano. As much as his good humour and alacrity precedes him, there is an undercurrent of violence in his character, that he seems to try and keep dampened down and controlled. Until someone needs a good kicking of course. Although he has forged strong friendships, his one with Jags is a constant delight in the book with the joshing and camaraderie, also with his feisty and hugely loyal housemates, faces from the local community, and a quite frankly scary acquaintance from his time in prison, we get the overriding impression that Zaq is a good guy to have on your side when trouble comes down.

Zaq embodies the themes of intense loyalty and revenge that loom large in the book, there is an undercurrent of uncertainty and emotional frailty to his character, so astutely drawn by the author when we observe Zaq with his parents, and his embarking on a tentative romantic relationship. His residual guilt from what he has put his parents through, and his estrangement from them and his brother is poignantly handled, So much is conveyed by Anwar in the stilting interactions, and the gaps in the conversations between Zaq and his parents, where a knowing look or a fleeting physical touch, conveys his need to build bridges with his family and win back their trust. It’s beautifully done, adding a very human touch to Zaq’s character that just emphasises the very real feel of his character, and his need to make personal connections, despite the sense of him holding himself back, unwilling to disappoint people again.

There is much to be admired about Stone Cold Trouble from the astute and visual characterisation, with a potent and lively mix of the good, the bad, the ugly, and the quite frankly stupid. The book is nicely tempered by an acknowledgement and depiction of, of an extremely distressing period of Asian history, and its reverberations into the modern day. The portrayal of Zaq’s community, and Zaq himself, with his ties of friendship and family, and the little bursts of humour that arise from this are a sheer delight, in what is overall an extremely well-plotted and meticulously planned thriller, that gathers a head of steam and ingenuity that’ll fair blow your socks off.

I loved this book.

Really loved it.

Highly recommended.

_________________________________________________________________________

(I bought this copy of Stone Cold Trouble, published by Dialogue Books)

#BlogTour- Agnes Ravatn-The Seven Doors “A taut and precise psychological thriller.” @OrendaBooks

University professor Nina is at a turning point. Her work seems increasingly irrelevant, her doctor husband is never home, relations with her difficult daughter are strained, and their beautiful house is scheduled for demolition. When her daughter decides to move into another house they own, things take a very dark turn. The young woman living there disappears, leaving her son behind, the day after Nina and her daughter pay her a visit. With few clues, the police enquiry soon grinds to a halt, but Nina has an inexplicable sense of guilt. Unable to rest, she begins her own investigation, but as she pulls on the threads of the case, it seems her discoveries may have very grave consequences for her and her family…

Having been completely bowled over by Agnes Ravatn’s previous book The Bird Tribunal I was anticipating another story layered with psychological suspense and dramatic tension. The Seven Doors achieves precisely that and Ravatn does not disappoint.

Although the book involves a seemingly simple premise for a plot,  what Ravatn layers into it, makes this a far from linear tale. Just as The Bird Tribunal encapsulated the psychological suspense of Patricia Highsmith and was powered by a literary allusion throughout, so the author draws on a similar idea here. Consequently, aside from her main character Nina finding herself embroiled and unduly fascinated by the disappearance of her and her husband’s tenant Mari, herself a mysterious and mercurial figure, Ravatn threads into this mystery a number of themes and digressions drawing on psychological schools of thought, folklore, literature and music. I do concede that I was much more drawn to this side of the book, as I unfortunately guessed the perpetrator of Mari’s disappearance from quite early on, but was completely fascinated by the the references to the legend of Bluebeard (which spawns the title of the book) of which I knew nothing, and the other facets of the book mentioned previously with a focus on humanities and the psychological. There is nothing better than finishing a book having discovered something new, particularly when it is so skilfully woven into the plot without feeling forced or contrived.

Another aspect of this book that I enjoyed was Ravatn’s characterisation, particularly of the women, as the male characters, aside from Mari’s estranged husband seemed a little more functional rather than rounded. Nina is a fascinating character, being older, and perhaps with a more heightened awareness of time passing by, with her home on the point of demolition, and the machinations of moving on, and moving out. It seems that in this period of change and uncertainty, her transformation into an aged Nancy Drew could not have come at a better time for her, and perhaps, on a more human level, proves to her that she still has some worth outside of being a lecturer, a wife and a mother. Speaking of which, I loved Ingeborg her daughter whose lack of  tact and diplomacy is an absolute joy to behold. She is resolute, and like a dog with a bone, will pester, cajole and annoy to get what she wants, with little thought for others, leading to some of the lighter moments within the book.

Overall, I enjoyed the linear quality of the main storyline of The Seven Doors, which gave the plot the opportunity to go off on other tangents linked to Nina’s particular field of academic expertise, with music, folklore and literature also being used as tropes within the book. Fluidly translated by Rosie Hedger once again, this is a taut and precise psychological thriller, deceptive in its simplicity but with some interesting diversions, that leads to a satisfying read overall. Recommended.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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Mikael Niemi- To Cook A Bear-(tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner) “An utterly fascinating and uniquely different crime novel @maclehosepress

It is 1852, and in Sweden’s far north, deep in the Arctic Circle, charismatic preacher and Revivalist Lars Levi Læstadius impassions a poverty-stricken congregation with visions of salvation. But local leaders have reason to resist a shift to temperance over alcohol. Jussi, the young Sami boy Læstadius has rescued from destitution and abuse, becomes the preacher’s faithful disciple on long botanical treks to explore the flora and fauna. Læstadius also teaches him to read and write – and to love and fear God. When a milkmaid goes missing deep in the forest, the locals suspect a predatory bear is at large. A second girl is attacked, and the sheriff is quick to offer a reward for the bear’s capture. Using early forensics and daguerreotype, Læstadius and Jussi find clues that point to a far worse killer on the loose, even as they are unaware of the evil closing in around them…

Delighted to be joining the blog blast to celebrate the release of To Cook A Bear by Mikael Niemi, an utterly fascinating and uniquely different crime novel. Using the real life figure, the Revivalist preacher, Lars Levi Læstadius as the central character, adds an authenticity and deeper level of interest to the book, and being unfamiliar with this highly intelligent, progressive and insightful man, there is a real frisson of Niemi linking the past with the present here. To try and encapsulate in a review the many themes of the philosophical, spiritual and metaphysical, and the razor sharp historical detail that Niemi so confidently and brilliantly entwines in this book won’t be easy, as this is a novel quite unlike any other that I have encountered of late.

On a very basic level, this book is a murder mystery with a small community filled with fear and suspicion as a murderer walks amongst them, preying on defenceless young women in a series of attacks driven by violent rage.  As such, even with such a seemingly simple premise, Niemi constructs a chilling and compelling mystery, as the suspicion amongst the local people is attributed by turn to a possible bear attack, to a wandering miscreant, and then far more dangerously into the perpetrator being from the community itself. Reading this from a contemporary viewpoint, I was struck by how little the human race has moved on in terms of accepting peoples’ differences, as the community quickly turns on Jussi, the young Sami boy that Læstadius has taken into his tutelage. This fear of the unknown and the different runs like a vein throughout the book, as even Læstadius himself, with his Revivalist preaching and fervent followers puts him at odds with the men of influence in the town, who value wealth and gaiety over religion and abstinence. Consequently, there are many trials and pitfalls for Læstadius and Jussi, who intent on identifying the perpetrator find themselves in an increasingly perilous position.

What I was increasingly struck by was the progressiveness and intuitive thinking of Læstadius, harnessing clues and applying practical chains of thought to the residual evidence of each crime. Obviously, forensic science was very much in its infancy in this period, but Læstadius neatly assesses and applies increasingly modern methods to his dissemination of the physical evidence he uncovers, based on common sense and lateral thinking. Hence, we see the rudimentary application of the crime scene analysis, we as modern readers are familiar with in its purest form, as Læstadius inches forward with his knowledge and supposition on how to gather clues, analyse them, and catch a killer. From fingerprints to daguerreotypes, from simple pencil shavings to indentations in the landscape, Læstadius draws on his knowledge of psychology, botany, literature and branches of science and pseudo science to close in on the perpetrator.

I think it serves as a testament to the quality of Niemi’s writing and his erudite turn of phrase, and by turn the sublime translation by Deborah Bragan-Turner, that I revisited several passages throughout my reading of the book. His rendering of this harsh, but beautiful landscape, the sheer drudgery and hardship of these people’s lives, the physicality of his characters, and the more metaphysical musings of Læstadius himself on art, literature and education, held me in their thrall. On the subject of the community he is a part of, I was struck by their deep connection to the land and the way that their lives have this naturalistic interconnectedness, perhaps stronger than faith and education itself. “ You might easily form the impression that the farm-maid or the reindeer herder lacked the disposition for academic study. But even though they didn’t read books, they knew the changes in the movement of the animals at every moment in the year. They knew hundreds of reindeer marks by heart, and manged to find old pasture grounds, berry patches and fishing lakes from the high mountains to the coastline…In many matters, local people had a deeper understanding than all of Uppsala’s professors.” As much as Læstadius recognises that these people and particularly their children have the potential for a profession, education and improvement, he never loses sight of this more basic characteristic of his flock that connects them to the soil. Likewise, with his apprentice Jussi, he recognises and respects Jussi’s physical need to wander and be amongst nature, but aims to educate him as fully as possible, and their relationship seems to transcend a simple one of teacher and pupil or even adoptive father and son.

To Cook A Bear proved to be an incredibly enjoyable reading experience for me, and as someone who has an innate curiosity of the world and our place within it, I found it tremendously satisfying. Not only did it read as a compelling tale of jealousy and murder, with its nods to early forensic techniques, but it expanded out to envelop a host of larger themes based on religion, morality, art and at its heart an enduring interconnectedness with the landscape and the changing of the seasons. Mikael Niemi has produced a completely fascinating, intelligent, and beautifully written book. Highly recommended.

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Lars Levi Laestadius was born in 1800 in the municipality of Jäkkvik in Swedish Lapland and died in 1861 in Pajala on the Swedish side of the border with Finland, which was a Russian Grand Duchy during the nineteenth century. Laestadius was educated as a theologian and worked as a vicar in different municipalities in Swedish Lapland. He also contributed to scientific fields such as botany and ethnography, as well as linguistics and philosophy, and participated in the French La Recherche scientific expedition to Finnmark and Spitsbergen in 1838. He is best remembered as a revival preacher and the revival movement “Laestadianism” has become a central influence in the cultural heritage of Northern Norway, as well as Northern Sweden and Finland.

(With thanks to Maclehose Press for the ARC)

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***GIVEAWAY*** Michael J. Malone- A Song Of Isolation @orendabooks #BlogTour



***GIVEAWAY***

Delighted that my stop on The Song Of Isolation blog tour gives you the chance to win a digital copy of this compelling new psychological thriller from the excellent Michael J. Malone. Here’s a wee taster of what the book is about, and see below on how to enter…

Film star Amelie Hart is the darling of the silver screen, appearing on the front pages of every newspaper. But at the peak of her fame she throws it all away for a regular guy with an ordinary job. The gossip columns are aghast: what happened to the woman who turned heads wherever she went? Any hope the furore will die down are crushed when Amelie’s boyfriend Dave is arrested on charges of child sexual abuse. Dave strongly asserts his innocence, and when Amelie refuses to denounce him, the press witch hunt quickly turns into physical violence, and she has to flee the country. While Dave is locked up with the most depraved men in the country and Amelie is hiding on the continent, Damaris, the victim at the centre of the story, is isolated – a child trying to make sense of an adult world…

And  the winner is….

Julie Eccles

You’ll be receiving your digital copy soon! Enjoy!

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Michael J. Malone is a prize-winning poet and author who was born and brought up in the heart of Burns’ country. He has published over 200 poems in literary magazines throughout the UK, including New Writing Scotland, Poetry Scotland and Markings. Blood Tears, his bestselling debut novel won the Pitlochry Prize from the Scottish Association of Writers. His psychological thriller, A Suitable Lie, was a number-one bestseller, and the critically acclaimed House of Spines, After He Died and In the Absence of Miracles soon followed suit. A former Regional Sales Manager (Faber & Faber) he has also worked as an IFA and a bookseller. Michael lives in Ayr.

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#BlogTour- Max Seeck- The Witch Hunter “An intensely malevolent tale that effectively merges the criminal and the supernatural.” @MaxSeeck @WelbeckPublish @ed_pr

Detective Jessica Niemi is called to investigate a murder case which is completely out of the ordinary. The wife of a famous writer, Roger Koponen, appears to have been killed in a bizarre ritual. As more ritual murders occur in the coming days, it becomes obvious that Jessica is after a serial killer. But the murders are not random – they follow a pattern taken from Roger’s bestselling trilogy. Has a devoted fan lost their mind, or is this case more personal?

Welcome to the first stop on the blog tour for The Witch Hunter by Max Seeck, an intensely malevolent tale set in Finland, that effectively merges the criminal and the supernatural into a delightfully creepy thriller…

With Seeck’s background in screenwriting it is little wonder that he has produced one of the most visual thrillers that I have read for some time. From the opening scene with a woman pacing the housing equivalent of a goldfish bowl with the dark night surrounding her, you know from the outset that something evil is set to do some serious mischief, and this motif of darkness and the supernatural carries through the book with a creeping sense of unease on the part of the reader. As the book also carries the theme of life mirroring art, as the crimes perpetrated seem to be replicating the fictional crimes of a renowned crime author’s work, the murders are particularly gruesome, and have their base in historical methods of punishments. With Seeck’s finesse in depicting these murders in technicolour detail with the pace and visuality of cinema, I felt for most of the book that I was immersed in a cracking good horror film, and was flinching on more than one occasion. I really enjoyed the to and fro of the detectives trying to link the crimes with their fictional counterparts, identifying potential victims, and the little diversions throughout of the interactions between the suspects. There are a whole host of bizarre ritualistic killings linked to the folkloric methods of despatching witches which are both fascinating and terrifying. A clever and slick premise that works superbly throughout, with more than one murderous surprise in store along the way…

The central police protagonist detective Jessica Niemi charts an interesting course during the book, being both investigator and suspect at various points in the story. She is cleverly used as a filter for the more malevolent aspects of the murders, and under increasing pressure to disassociate herself from the otherworldly forces at work, that increasingly use her as a conduit. At times she seems to channel both open eyed belief and then a scorching cynicism as these strange events unfold. leading to some deep self-questioning on her behalf.  I really liked her professional relationship with her superior officer Chief Inspector Erne Mickson, himself a stand-out character with an interesting part to play in the book. There is an almost paternal concern that he shows for her, tempered by his respect for her as a superb, if slightly renegade, investigator, and their working relationship goes through a good amount of doubt and recrimination.

Slightly disconcertingly there is a parallel storyline in the book, which alternates in and out of the main investigation, recounting an ill-fated sojourn by Jessica in Venice some time previously. This sees her get involved with a troubled and increasingly coercive man, and although for fear of spoilers I cannot reveal how this plays out, Venice proves to be a time of intense emotional experience for Jessica. Admittedly, this particular arc of the story does go some way to defining Jessica, giving us an insight to how she has evolved into the woman and detective she is, but I did find it a bit distracting, and found myself at times, itching to get back to the main plot of murder and mayhem.

Overall I enjoyed The Witch Hunter, particularly the most supernatural and ritualistic elements of the book and the blending of fiction with reality as the killer’s motivation for some particularly grisly and heinous murders. The core investigation of the book and those that undertake unfolds at a steady and satisfying pace with all the panache and recognisable elements of the Nordic noir genre. I will be interested to see where Seeck takes Jessica Niemi next, in what is a solid start for a potential series too. Recommended.

(With thanks to Welbeck Publishing for the ARC)

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